Gary Oldman on playing 'the anti-Bond'

Cath Clarke meets the Brit veteran to talk 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'

Gary Oldman excels as George Smiley in the new 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' Gary Oldman excels as George Smiley in the new 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' - Portrait: Rob Greig

Gary Oldman is welling up. Not upset, exactly, just a little overcome. I expected him to be intimidating as the retired hellraiser, or overserious and actorly. Instead, he’s a thoughtful interviewee, with a dry, funny streak. And, it turns out, a bit of a softy. He’s wiping away a tear with the back of his hand. ‘It’s been a long ten years, a tough ten years. I get quite emotional talking about it…’ His voice trails off. To the rest of the world, it might look like he’s been going through the motions for the past decade, with supporting roles in ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Batman’. There’s been nothing to live up to the line that Gary Oldman is the greatest actor never to have won an Oscar, and no follow-up to his brilliant 1997 directorial debut, ‘Nil by Mouth’. Why? Because, as Oldman explains, he put his career to one side after finding himself a single dad at 43 to sons Gulliver and Charlie, now 14 and 12. ‘I made a choice. I decided to be there and raise them.’

Ten years on, Oldman is back and it’s probably time to dust off the ‘finest-actor-of-his-generation’ plaudits. Who knows, maybe it’s even time for that Oscar. He’s got his fire back. He’s making a leading-man return in the upcoming adaptation of John le Carré’s Cold War thriller, ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, as mole-finder George Smiley. In the book, Le Carré describes Smiley as small and podgy, with ample chins and a generous stomach. Wasn’t Oldman a little miffed when the script landed on his mat? Ample chins? If nothing else, he must have thought: Not yet, I’m too young. Alec Guinness – who, with his wise-owl performance in the BBC’s 1979 series, made Smiley his own (‘burned on our consciousness’, says Oldman) – was in his mid-sixties. Oldman’s a mere stripling of 53. ‘I tell you, initially, I did think that.’ He pauses. He pauses a lot.

Oldman modestly says he was flattered to be asked. ‘It is a great gift for Smiley to come along, but I had to think about it,’ he says. What was stopping him? ‘The ghost of Guinness, really.’ Another pause. ‘And then I just thought: Oh come on, don’t be silly. There’s more than one interpretation of a classical play. There’s more than one Hamlet, more than one Lear. Why should Alec Guinness be the only one to say those great lines? You know what I mean?’ Incidentally, he does a very good, fond impression of Guinness: ‘Bruee beaarrr… it’s that Eeyore way he’s got.’

There has been a fair amount of umbrage-taking and discontented murmurs about the film, as if it’s somehow defiling the memory of Alec Guinness, or dumbing down five-and-a-half-hours of top-drawer TV into a two-and-a-bit-hours film. Not at all. The film is terrific precisely because it’s not trying to be a remake of anything: not the TV show, not even the book. And Le Carré – not a man to mince words – loves it, says Oldman. He reaches for a comparison with ‘The Lives of Others’. ‘Our film has got a European sensibility. If I remember it right, before it was a cosy English affair. We haven’t done that – and I think that’s partly because Tomas is not a Brit. It’s a little edgier, a little sexier.’

Gary Oldman in 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' Gary Oldman in 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'

‘Tomas’ is Tomas Alfredson – the Swedish director of the vampire hit ‘Let the Right One in’. At first glance he’s a wonky-looking choice for this exceedingly British story. It turns out to be an inspired one. The film is an outsider’s vision, of a murky, sinister Britain at the fag-end of its status as a superpower (and, this being the ’70s, everyone smokes).

Britain may be past its prime in the international stakes, but we can still knock out world-class actors. ‘Tinker, Tailor’ is full of them. It’s almost profligate (and thrilling), the way they pop up – some for just a scene or two. In no particular order of greatness they include John Hurt, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones and Simon McBurney. ‘It’s quite a two-step, isn’t it?’ Oldman agrees with a laugh. ‘Le Carré said that they emptied the National Theatre when they made the television programme.’ Oldman particularly enjoyed working with Cumberbatch, who plays Smiley’s right-hand man, Peter Guillam: ‘We’ve become good friends, me and Benedict,’ he reveals. ‘And I was in awe of John Hurt. I was quite nervous on my first day.’

Oldman has lived in LA for years, but he’s back in London to shoot ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, the new Batman movie. When I ask him which of his characters is most like him, he picks its avuncular police commissioner, Jim Gordon: a family man; a solid, decent guy. Which seems about right. And so much for the hellraiser. Oldman has an academic air about him, a detached amusement with the world, a tidy beard, a scholarly sweep of hair. There’s still a trace of south London (‘Gawdon’ for ‘Gordon’) in his accent. He grew up in New Cross, raised by his mum after his dad walked out. As a teenager working in BHS, he auditioned at Rada, where they sniffily advised him to ‘think about something else to do for a living’. Instead, he got a place at the Rose Bruford College in Sidcup and showed Rada where to stick it with a string of piercingly good theatre and film roles – Mike Leigh’s ‘Meantime’, ‘Prick up Your Ears’, ‘Sid and Nancy’.

You wonder if that Oscar may continue to prove elusive, for now at least – whether Smiley is a tad unshowy, a little mild-mannered to be Oscar-worthy. The perfect spy, his expression is inscrutable behind his glasses, giving away almost nothing. The truth is, of course, it takes a first-rate actor to play it. ‘Gary Oldman can clean his glasses and it’s as electrifying as somebody else punching someone out,’ reckons  Alfredson. Was Smiley a hard role to play, I ask Oldman. ‘It was rather a joy, actually. I mean, I’ve been wanting to do that for years. I always get cast as these rather frenetic characters.’ (He namechecks Drexl here, his white Jamaican drug dealer in ‘True Romance’.) ‘It was very, very enjoyable to let everyone around me climb the walls.’

Oldman punking it up as Sid Vicious in Alex Cox's 'Sid & Nancy' Oldman punking it up as Sid Vicious in Alex Cox's 'Sid & Nancy'

He likes ‘Tinker, Tailor’ precisely because it’s not all brainless car chases and shoot-outs. In fact, he had to put on a paunch (‘I ate a lot – custard, treacle sponge’) and a silver rinse to prepare. ‘This is anti-Bond,’ he says. ‘There are no gadgets, there are no gizmos, there’s no Aston Martin, no women. It’s Smiley’s wife who is jumping into bed.’ He’s talking about serial cheat Mrs Smiley, Lady Ann.

‘I would climb into George, I would sort of put him on,’ Oldman continues.

‘I had the shirt and tie, the coat and the glasses. And I missed him. It was a week or so after we finished and I missed him.’ He could always pop Smiley back on; after all, there is a sequel novel. ‘What, “Smiley’s People”?’ Oldman seems tickled by the suggestion and surprised – though I’m sure the idea must have been mooted by producers. ‘We’ll have to see how this one is received. I don’t know what they’ll make of it.’ Ultimately, he says, his Smiley is ‘crueller’. How so? ‘I think I carry his sadness, the melancholy of being cuckolded. I suppose I play the disenchanted romantic. Smiley is masterful at what he does and yet domestically he’s very dysfunctional.’

Masterful at what he does and yet domestically dysfunctional… It’s a description that has perhaps echoed Oldman’s life for a while. He hit a career high when ‘Nil by Mouth’ premiered triumphantly at Cannes, with Kathy Burke winning Best Actress. Partly autobiographical, the film took him back to his old stamping ground in south London – Ray Winstone playing an alcoholic with a blunt, violent temper and Burke as the wife who sticks by him. It’s a brutal film, blanched of sentimentality but written and acted with real heart. And Oldman really gets under the skin of his female characters; it’s a love letter, perhaps, to the women he grew up with – his mum and sisters.

At the time, Oldman looked unstoppable: an unnervingly talented actor who could slip into the lives of historical figures as diverse as Joe Orton, Beethoven, Sid Vicious and Lee Harvey Oswald; he could pile it on as boo-hiss villains and psychos in blockbusters; he could even direct a heartbreaking arthouse picture. He had also kicked a two-bottle-a-day vodka habit (‘I could pour it on cornflakes’) and settled down in LA with his third wife, Donya Fiorentino, and their two young sons (he has an older boy, Alfie, from his first marriage to Lesley Manville). When America’s answer to Melvyn Bragg, Charlie Rose, asked Oldman if he wanted to direct a second film he answered: ‘I can’t wait… I’m desperate to.’

And yet, here we are all these years later. ‘Yeah. You know, my life took a different direction. That was my story,’ he says philosophically, with a no-regrets shrug. The abridged version of the story is that Oldman and Fiorentino divorced, and he got custody of the boys. ‘Raising kids is the hardest thing I’ve done.’ Harder than directing a film? ‘Harder than anything.’ In the years since, he has turned down the kind of roles actors don’t turn down because he didn’t want to travel. And he has made a couple of ‘questionable’ movies because they were shot close to his home in LA.

Those two lucrative supporting roles in the ‘Batman’ and ‘Harry Potter’ films have been a godsend. ‘I don’t mean this in a cynical way – because I’m so grateful that those two franchises came along,’ he says. ‘But they allowed me to do the least amount of work for the most amount of money.’ You do wonder if he might also have got a bit sick of acting. Oldman ponders that. ‘I think you fall in and out of love with things. You can’t be consistent. You can’t keep a level of 100 per cent enthusiasm over 30 years. It comes in waves. Peaks and valleys.’

Until now his home life (which is very un-Hollywood – dinner with the kids, ferrying them to music lessons) has ruled out getting back behind the camera: ‘The commitment to direct a film – it’s Herculean.’ Now the boys are hitting their teens he’s seriously thinking about it. By the end of this month, he’ll have finished the first draft of a script featuring a British character in nineteenth-century America. ‘This could be the one.’ There’s also a sister piece to ‘Nil by Mouth’. ‘But I’m not ready to do it yet. I don’t know why. It’s about obsession and dysfunction.’ Here comes another one of his long pauses, which makes his next statement sound very final: ‘I will direct again.’

All this juggling, balancing parenting and career – it’s a conversation you often find yourself having with women directors. I mention this to Oldman. ‘Well, I used to be a muppa. It’s what my kids called me. A mum and a papa. So I was the muppa.’ He’s plain old papa now, after getting married again, to the British singer Alexandra Edenborough. ‘I found them a good mum,’ he says. ‘You know, being responsible for two kids is very rewarding, but I hadn’t really relaxed on a set until “The Book of Eli”. That’s the first time I could really focus on the work, because I knew they were being well looked after.’ And here’s where he gets a little tearful.

People are talking about Gary Oldman’s comeback. Does it feel that way to him? ‘My comeback? I think they talked about that with “Nil by Mouth”: the prodigal son returns or something. I think we’ll call this a recharge.’ In ambles one of the film’s producers, very LA, booming, ‘You got everything you need?’ Oldman turns to me, momentarily concerned. ‘I haven’t rambled on about a load of old nonsense, have I?’

Read our review of 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'